Orthopedic surgeons cycle 3,000 miles to fundraise for free surgeries

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A group of eight amateur cyclists, including three orthopedic professionals, are training for a cycling race that starts Saturday, and crosses 12 states and climbs over 170,000 vertical feet.  The group, Team Midwestern Blazing Saddles, is fundraising to provide free hip and knee replacement surgeries in underdeveloped countries as part of the nonprofit Operation Walk.

“I think the impressive thing is we are just weekend warriors,” Dr. Keith Berend, an orthopedic surgeon based in New Albany, Ohio, told FoxNews.com. “I felt like this was such a big event, a legendary undertaking; we could converge our passion to help benefit Operation Walk.”

To cover the 3,000 miles, each team member will ride about four hours a day every 16 hours to make their goal of finishing in less than seven days.

Team Midwestern Blazing Saddles is fundraising for the Mooresville, Indiana, and Utah chapters of Operation Walk. Berend, 45, has been involved with the organization for about 12 years, traveling to Nicaragua and Guatemala on mission trips.

During each of Operation Walk, Mooresville’s annual weeklong trips to an underserved country, surgeons perform 100 to 120 free surgeries, including 80 to 90 joint replacements, and 20 to 25 foot and ankle surgeries. Each international trip costs $150,000 to $200,00, and covers the logistics of transportation and shipping equipment, which is donated by manufacturers.

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In underserved countries, orthopedic surgery tends to be necessitated by systemic conditions for which they don’t have the same medication that is available in the United States, such as those for rheumatoid arthritis and deformities, which would be otherwise treated before the need for surgery. Patients abroad also tend to be younger than those in the U.S., as they don’t have access to care, Berend said.

Operation Walk is a network of 16 stateside centers, each a 501(c)(3), that has sent teams to underserved countries since 1996. Operation Walk USA, also a 501(c)(3), works to provide services in the U.S. While many of the doctors work with both organizations, they are not affiliated.

Each international chapter is responsible for raising their own funds.

“It’s all about trying to get the resources we need to help as many patients as we can,” Dr. Adolph V. Lombardi, Jr., an orthopedic surgeon and co-founder of Operation Walk USA, told FoxNews.com. “What I’ve been impressed with is the response of my colleagues across the country. If you can’t go [to a third world country], there’s a way to do it in your own backyard and take care of your own community.”

Operation Walk USA has performed over 600 cases since its inception in 2009, a total of $20 million in pro bono work. While the international organization must travel and bring all their supplies and personnel, in the U.S., the organization looks for local doctors and works with hospitals, who donate their staff, operating room time and other goods. Both groups receive implants as donations from manufacturers.

Operation Walk USA focuses on hip and knee replacements, the major weight-bearing joints of the body. The surgeries take place annually in annually in December, during which an estimated 80 patients will receive free joint replacements from 55 volunteer orthopedic surgeons at 40 hospitals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22.7 percent of adults have self-reported doctor-diagnosed arthritis and 9.8 percent of adults have arthritis-attributable activity limitation.

“We seem to ruin our knees just by our weight issues,” Lombardi, 60, said. “If you develop arthritis of the hip or knee, you’ll find out how debilitating it is and how restrictive it is, and how much these operations relieve pain and increase function.”

“Over 90 percent of our patients are happy with this operative intervention,” he added.  “What I love about our program in the U.S. is we’ve put people back in the workforce so they can earn money to put food on the table for their children.”

Team Midwestern Blazing Saddles and their crew of 10 is heading out to the starting line in Oceanside, California, and aiming for the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland.

“We have a wonderful group of surgeons who are really dedicated to giving back to society, whether in the U.S. or internationally,” Lombardi said. “It’s because we love what we do. It’s so revitalizing— it’s why  you became a doctor.”